Composer. The "romantic" of the Second Viennese School, he was a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and adopted his methods of atonal and later 12-tone (or serial) composition. Berg achieved compelling emotion and great melodic expressiveness in his music, qualities that have made it more accessible to listeners. His landmark opera "Wozzeck" (1925) brought him international fame. Based on Georg Buchner's tragedy about a common soldier driven to madness and murder by a society that exploits him, it remains today the only atonal work in the standard operatic repertory. Berg wrote the libretto himself, as he would later do for his second opera, "Lulu" (1937). His Violin Concerto (1936) is another classical favorite, and is considered by many to be the ultimate test of a virtuoso's abilities. Berg was born in Vienna. He began writing songs at 15, and about 80 of these youthful efforts survive. From 1904 to 1911 he studied privately with Schoenberg, along with fellow student Anton Webern, and the three remained close friends for the rest of Berg's life. His first published opus, the Piano Sonata (1908), is fairly traditional, but by the time of his String Quartet Op. 3 (1910) and the "Three Orchestral Pieces Op. 6" (1914) he was making full, individual use of atonal technique. Berg's early music met with hostility and the first performance of his "Five Altenberg Songs" (1913) caused the audience to riot. After that episode Vienna's leading music critics publicly declared they would not attend concert programs with Berg's name on them. It was not until the very successful premiere of "Wozzeck," when Berg was 40, that he gained respect and a measure of financial stability; and even this was short-lived in his homeland, for in 1933 Nazi Germany banned his work as "degenerate," and Austria followed suit. By then Berg was composing in the more disciplined serial style. Among his 12-tone efforts are the "Lyric Suite" (1926) for string quartet (later transcribed for string orchestra); the concert aria "Der Wein" (1929); and the opera "Lulu", on which Berg worked from 1929 until his death. The "Lyric Suite" is of particular interest to historians because of the light it sheds on the composer's personal life. It is a musical chronicle of Berg's thwarted romance with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the suite's secret dedicatee; it seems they were truly in love, but both were already married and remained faithful to their spouses, in deed if not in spirit. For "Lulu" Berg adapted two plays by Frank Wedekind ("The Earth Spirit" and "Pandora's Box") to describe the titular heroine's rise in society through a succession of men, her descent into prostitution and eventual death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Due to poor health (he was asthmatic and had an abnormally small heart) and his meticulous working habits, Berg realized just over a dozen mature compositions. His last completed work, the Violin Concerto, was intended as a memorial for his young friend Manon Gropius. Instead it became his own Requiem. He died at 50 of blood poisoning, the result of an abscess from an insect bite. This left the orchestration of the third act of "Lulu" unfinished. Berg's widow, Helene, refused to allow anyone else to complete the score, and for 40 years only the opera's first two acts were performed, along with an unsatisfactory makeshift ending. After Helene Berg's death in 1976, Friedrich Cerha finished scoring the finale and the full "Lulu" was finally given at the Paris Opera in 1979. Unlike Schoenberg and Webern, Berg did not inspire a legion of followers; his music was the least radical of the Second Viennese School. But he influenced later composers, notably Dimitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten, and won a lasting popular acclaim that has largely eluded his serialist colleagues.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards